TIFF 2021: ‘Lakewood’ is an Emotionally Manipulative Thriller

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Lakewood - But Why Tho

A normal morning takes a turn for the horrific in Lakewood. For mother of two Amy, the day starts like any other — she wakes her kids for school and goes on a morning run along some remote trails. Her security is shattered when a friend calls with terrible news: her teenage son’s school has gone on lockdown and an active shooter is still at large on campus. Miles from home and her child, Amy is driven by the singular goal of getting to her son as soon as possible. So she starts running. With her smartphone as her only tether to the constantly evolving events at the school, Amy pushes her body and mind to the limits to get to her son in time.

Lakewood stars Naomi Watts and is helmed by director Phillip Noyce. The morals of Lakewood are instantly clear to the viewer. This film is the byproduct of decades of social anxieties and bewilderment at the American phenomenon of school shootings and goes for the emotional core by focusing on the experience of a helpless parent. It’s a tried and tested formula for a subject that audiences have largely gone numb to. At this point, a school shooter film is about as appealing as a cinematic meditation on COVID-19. This is to say that the subject matter has become so tired, hopeless, and inevitable, that any punch it may have gives way to the audience’s burning need for an escape.

On a narrative level, Lakewood is minimalist and effective. Noyce does an excellent job structuring the events of the film with this super tight focus on Amy. The viewer is eased into the same sense of dread as Amy, with details on the traumatic event unfolding slowly, intentionally, and with increasing desperation. The film does an excellent job of suspending its main character and the audience in growing tension. Every new piece of information could be a godsend or a herald of doom.

The device of focusing this entire drama in the single setting of Amy sprinting alone through the woods is highly effective. The isolation and the limited access to information allow the focus to go on Amy’s emotional journey, her fear, and desperation. Unfortunately, this same device also has the effect of lowering the stakes and creating silly asides that take the viewer out of the tension of the moment. Beat for beat, the viewer can work down a trope checklist: When will she trip and injure herself? When will she narrowly miss the car that could take her to her destination? When will she lose signal and get lost for a moment? Time and time again, practical solutions are thrown out the window in favor of extending the drama. I mean, who calls a car to pick them up and runs away from the pick-up spot? It’s frustrating, silly, and a real shame to see Lakewood continuously undermine itself in this way.

At the end of the day, Lakewood comes off as emotionally manipulative and preachy, rather than being a gripping thriller. It reaches for the low-hanging fruit in terms of narrative twists, is blandly predictable, and tugs at the cheapest emotions. There will certainly be a particular brand of viewer that is hopelessly drawn to the subject matter and the fuzzy family values of the film. That being said, Lakewood comes off like a bad after-school special. A sophisticated premise that trips over its own ham-fisted messaging.

Lakewood had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

Lakewood
  • 4/10
    Rating - 4/10
4/10

TL;DR

Lakewood comes off as emotionally manipulative and preachy, rather than being a gripping thriller. It reaches for the low-hanging fruit in terms of narrative twists, is blandly predictable, and tugs at the cheapest emotions. There will certainly be a particular brand of viewer that is hopelessly drawn to the subject matter and the fuzzy family values of the film. That being said, Lakewood comes off like a bad after-school special. A sophisticated premise that trips over its own ham-fisted messaging.